A life in Notts;Books

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Edward Blishen on Alan Sillitoe writing about himself for the first time, Sillitoe says. LIFE WITHOUT ARMOUR. By Alan Sillitoe. Harper Collins pound;18.99. - 0 00 255570 0. COLLECTED STORIES. Flamingo pound;16.99. - 0 00 225222 8.

He was looking out of the window - for once not writing, he seems to remember, being in a vacant mood - when he saw a youngster in vest and shorts trotting past. He scribbled on a clean sheet of paper what he took to be the first line of a poem: "The loneliness of the long distance runner..." But no second line came, so he put it away, and got on with a long poem called "The Rats".

For eight years he had been trying to break into print. There'd been The General's Dilemma, a novel drawing on his passion for world politics and warfare. (At 15 he had set out to write a history of the war, alongside the dossier he was keeping on the illegal activities of his cousins: if his mother had not come across this last, the whole family might have ended up in prison, victims of the stubborn chronicler they'd spawned). There was The Palisade, and Mr Allen's Island, and much else: hope kept going by an agent as obstinate as himself.

Now he was in Bishop's Stortford, after six years abroad, largely in Majorca, where Robert Graves, having read one of the manuscripts, said: "Why don't you write something set in Nottingham? That's the place you know best." Though until he was 19 he had read only two adult novels, he had soon thereafter got on to DH Lawrence, that other local lad who had moved into Europe, towards the sun, and flowered there: and had begun by writing "something set in Nottingham".

Alan Sillitoe does not say if he was stirred by Graves's advice: but lately he had begun work on a novel with the tentative title The Adventures of Arthur Seaton, for which, with the unflinching cannibalism of the writer-in-waiting, he had drawn on several of his (of course, unpublished) short stories.

Arthur Seaton, hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as it ended up being called, was to be, extremely famously, a young man impatient with what he thought of as his enslavement to the lathe in the bicycle-making factory. Alan Sillitoe had worked at the same lathe, but with satisfaction: "The magic of turning out each separate object never left me."

Like Arthur Seaton, like the long distance runner (when at last that remarkable story wrote itself), he was marked by "an enduring disrespect for authority", which he attributed to the influence, this way or that, of his father, who had "the mind of a ten-year-old in the body of a brute". But he was endlessly patient, growlingly dogged, into the bargain: all along the years there are these photographs of him biting into his pipestem, the eyes reflecting the undivertable imagination within but being also stern, obdurate.

Sillitoe has told us much of all this in his fiction: and at first that seems a problem. There are stretches in the autobiography, spoken as the memoirist must speak them, as from a witness box, where I longed for what I thought of as the superior truthfulness of this or that short story or novel, spoken from the freer, warmer platform that the fictioneer occupies. But after a time one sees that the methodical trudge of the plain account of oneself has curiously valuable additions to offer.

Take the childhood. Sillitoe says he grew up as one of those referred to in Robert Graves's and Alan Hodges's The Long Weekend as "the unkillable poor". If it was a wonder that they were not killed by hard luck and penury, it was a wonder also that they did not kill each other. Sillitoe's father added to his streak of violence the frustrated fury of an illiterate. It is an example of the writer's refusal of self-pity that he says his father's hatred of his love of reading might have been a spur, and a reason to be grateful.

An early memory is of his mother making sure the blood from an injury inflicted by her husband dripped into a pail and not on the carpet. Sillitoe says, in his gruffest tone, that his was a paradise of a childhood compared to that of a Jewish boy or girl in the Warsaw ghetto. Yes, you want to say, of course: but this does not mean it was not awful to have to struggle up as children in Sillitoe's condition had to struggle up.

It is another valuable feature of the autobiography that it makes it plain how this determined child preserved himself. He had a passion for maps, and for the names of foreign places and people, and for the geography of the sky as well as that of the earth. He made his way forward via the Air Training Corps: became so good at navigation and the rest that he was accepted as a trainee pilot for the Fleet Air Arm, though later he withdrew: became an airfield controller.

All that, culminating in service in the RAF, has fed much of his fiction. But here we are helped to see clearly the young man who had perfected his armour against a world coldly ready to do him down. Intent here too on giving the strictest possible report on himself, Sillitoe says he had, out of what he thinks of as supineness and obtuseness, melted thought into action: he was not going to let the mind have much of a say, since this would lead to worry, and so to uncertainty: "And I wasn't having any of that."

But odd bits of experience were prising thought and action apart: music, for example, especially, for some reason, Bizet's L'Arlesienne; and among all the books he was reading, the two he'd come to know while still an adolescent, Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Then, to make it certain that his "not sufficiently unhappy state" should be fully, cruelly reformed, there was tuberculosis: "From wanting to be first-class everything I was suddenly defeated in an area where no trouble had been expected at all." This defeat, of course, was the first step towards a tremendous victory, when out of all that writing came the dramatic first success. Typically he says he was not dismayed when 15 years earlier his second attempt at the scholarship failed: as he puts it, he knew he was going to enter by way of the ceiling, not the cellar.

Not that he allowed any forward step to be easy. Tom Maschler would have taken Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for McGibbon and Kee, but wanted to edit it: and Sillitoe, having learned to write the hard way, was not going to be told by anyone how to revise his novel. Marvellous: though anyone reading him now, with whatever admiration, might wish he'd allowed editorship in respect of his addiction to the unrelated participle. (Alarmed, I imagine his teeth tightening on that pipestem).

His refusal to be thought of in any fashion that might be regarded as pigeonholing him makes him furious about being described as working class. He is a writer, he holds, like any other, one who happened to have emerged (receiving his first underwear ever at kitting out for the RAF) from awkward circumstances in down-town Nottingham. Again one thinks, yes of course: but read the short stories, especially the earlier ones in this selection, and try to think of some way of avoiding his wrath whilst putting the case that they offer remarkable views of the British working class just before, during and just after the Second World War.

What does Alan Sillitoe himself think of the difference between the platforms offered by fiction and autobiography (this autobiography, by the way, ending with the transformation in 1958 of the ugly duckling into the industrious swan: what followed, he says, disappointingly, would amount to a mere list of books produced).

When I rang him with the question the answer was instant. "In fiction," he said, "one always embellishes. Things have a patina that the imagination gives them." There was a slight pause. "Nothing in my fiction," he said, "is me."

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